Ronald Reagan's first term in the White House was barely a year old when Buick introduced the midsize A-body front-drive Century in 1982.

Somewhat updated and refined over the years, the old war horse still will be around until the end of the '96 model year.

Waiting in the wings is an all-new Century built on General Motors Corp.'s new W-body platform that this year also will spawn new-generation Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile Allure as well as the all-new U-van replacement for GM's APV minivans.

Buick is taking the wraps off the '97 Century at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month. Production starts next fall, with formal introduction in spring 1997.

If clunky describes what the current model has become, clean and elegant best defines the new version.

It won't cause anyone to exclaim "There goes the new Century," but that's not what Buick has in mind. "We're hoping for (styling) longevity,," says Wayne Kady, chief designer in Buick's Exterior Studio No.2. "We purposely avoided anything that could be considered trendy. Buick customers aren't interested in automotive fashions that may be hot one season and gone the next."

What Buick has fashioned is a very taut looking 4-door, 6-seat sedan that's mindful of a European sports sedan but makes no pretense at being anything other than an American car with some of the same attributes that will have generated 2 million sales of the old model during its 16-year production run.

Having said that, the new Century is considerably advanced in every way compared with the '96--from exterior and interior styling to more sophisticated ride, handling and noise/vibration/harshness (NVH) characteristics.

Although it looks smaller, the '97 is larger in several critical dimensions. At 109 ins. (277 cm) the new wheelbase is 4.1 ins. (10 cm) longer. The track is 2.8 ins. (7 cm) wider in front and 4.7 ins. (12 cm) in the rear, yet the turning radius is just 37 ft. (11 m)--about 6 ins. (15 cm) less than in the '96.

Only one engine will be offered: GM's aluminum-head 3.1L V-6 producing 160hp with 185 ft.-lbs. (250 Nm) of torque at 4,500 rpm, mated to a 4-speed electronically controlled automatic transaxle.

"Offering only one engine reduces the number of parts we need by about 100 and improves quality," says Randy R. Fior, Century product line manager. "90% to 95% of of the current buyers have opted for the 3.1 (a 2.2L 4-cyl. also is offered in the '96, as in the past).

The '97 Century weighs 400 lbs. (182 kg) more at 3,350 lbs. (1,522 kg) curb weight, but fuel economy remains the same: 20/29 mpg city/highway.

Antilock braking (ABS), air conditioning, power windows and automatic door locks are standard. Buick engineers and manufacturing experts focused heavily on component simplification to ease assembly and improve body fit. The entire bodyside from the front-door hinge pillar to the rear quarter panel, for example, is a single stamping, enabling Buick to maintain 4mm gaps on the doors. Triple door seals also are incorporated to reduce wind noise.

The grille is integrated into the front fascia to assure consistent alignment, replacing approximately eight individual pieces, and the front headlamp and turning lamp assembly is one unit, replacing four components in the old model.

Mark D. Hines, Century marketing line manager, says the target is younger, more affluent buyers for the '97. While a current Century buyer ranges from 60 to 70 years old, the '97 will shoot for the 45/55 "post boomer" crowd. Mr. Fior says those attending Buick customer clinics pegged the price at between $25,000 and $30,000.